Royal Navy vessels head for port after French protests off Jersey subside

Jersey fishing dispute
Jersey fishing dispute (PA Media)
19:22pm, Thu 06 May 2021
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Two Royal Navy vessels sent to Jersey in response to a protest by French fishermen are to return to port.

About 60 French boats took part in the protest around the Channel Island’s main port, St Helier, in a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights, before subsequently returning to port on Thursday.

Boris Johnson said he was “pleased that the situation in Jersey has been resolved” and thanked the Royal Navy for the swift response.

“The UK will always stand resolutely by the people of Jersey,” the Prime Minister said.

The authorities in Jersey have promised further talks to help resolve the row, but the French government hit out at a “British failure” to abide by the terms of the UK-EU trade deal and warned it would “use all the leverage at our disposal” to protect the fishing industry.

The European Union also accused Jersey of breaching the deal signed by the UK and Brussels.

During a day of drama in the waters around the Channel Island, French vessels gathered to protest against the new licences they have been required to obtain from the Jersey government to carry on operating.

HMS Severn and HMS Tamar were deployed in response to fears the French boats could blockade St Helier, while the French maritime authority for the Channel sent two police vessels to the area “to ensure the protection of human life at sea”.

Local fishermen reported flares were let off and that some boats entered the harbour for about an hour, with footage posted online apparently showing a French boat ramming the rear of a Jersey vessel.

The protest leaders denied they were seeking to impose a blockade and the flotilla eventually headed back to France.

The UK Government said the Royal Navy ships would prepare to return to port.

During the protest emergency talks were held on the water, with Jersey government representatives on one boat and representatives of the French fishing fleet on another, in order to comply with coronavirus restrictions.

Jersey’s chief minister John Le Fondre said: “We recognise that there have been challenges in the implementation of the new trade agreement.

“Speaking directly to the fishermen has enabled both parties to better understand how those challenges will be addressed, and we are proposing the establishment of a forum which will enable the Government of Jersey to continue to engage with all fishermen in the region openly and constructively.”

The French fishermen had been able to leave Jersey “knowing that they had been listened to, and that a step has been taken towards resolving the issues that have arisen during the move to the new trade agreement”.

A UK Government spokesman said: “We are pleased that French fishing boats have now left the vicinity of Jersey.

“Given the situation is resolved for now, the Royal Navy offshore patrol vessels will prepare to return to port in the UK.

“We remain on standby to provide any further assistance Jersey requests.”

One of the vessels was due to return home on Thursday night, with the other heading to port on Friday.

The UK insisted that the Jersey authorities have a right to regulate fisheries in their waters under the Brexit trade agreement.

The row erupted after the Jersey Government said French boats would be required to obtain licences to carry on fishing in the island’s waters under the terms of the trade deal with the EU, which came into force last Friday.

Jersey fishing dispute (PA Media)

The move provoked a wave of anger among French fishing communities, which complained that boats which had operated there for years were suddenly having their access restricted, because they could not prove their historical links with the waters.

A spokesman for the French ministry for Europe and foreign affairs said: “Amid the tensions that followed the British failure to abide by the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement in regard to licences for our fishermen in British waters, we are acting in a spirit of responsibility.

“We hope the situation will be swiftly resolved by the full and total implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which provides for continued access to British waters for fishermen with a history of working in those waters prior to Brexit.

“It is our only goal, and we want to use all the leverage at our disposal to protect the fishing industry and enable it to continue its activities.”

Earlier this week, French maritime minister Annick Girardin said Paris would cut off electricity to Jersey – which gets 95% of its power supply from France – if the dispute was not resolved.

Jersey fishing dispute (PA Media)

In Brussels, a spokeswoman for the European Commission said “additional conditions” attached to the new licences represented a breach of the trade deal.

She said they had “indicated to the UK that we see that the provisions of the EU/UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement, that we recently agreed, have not been met there, have not been respected”.

Jersey fisherman Josh Dearing said the appearance of the French boats had been “like an invasion”, and welcomed the presence of the Royal Navy ships.

“The French can be hostile. All of our livelihoods are in that harbour and if they wanted to they could cause damage,” he told the PA news agency.

“They can blockade their own harbours – they wouldn’t think twice about coming and doing it to us.”

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